One Second After (2009)
William Forstchen (1950-)
Although a work of fiction, One Second After is also William Forstchen’s attempt to bring more awareness to what he sees as an imminent threat that too few Americans recognize: a terrorist attack using a few atomic bombs to create an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) that destroys not only the US power generation and distribution grid, but also most electrical devices, from modern cars, to household appliances.
The basic concept (as explained in more detail in the novel, as well as in an afterward by a military expert) is that the explosion of an atomic bomb creates an EMP, which is picked up by nearby electrical equipment and, essentially, overloads their circuits, like a lightning strike. If such an explosion occurs above the atmosphere, then the atmosphere can act as an “enhancer” to the effect, and the area affected and the impact of the EMP becomes significantly larger.
The story takes place in a small town in the western hills of North Carolina, near Ashville. Early on the residents suddenly lose power; their appliances go silent, their cars --- except for older models that don not have electronics --- stop running, and even the telephone system dies. The main character in the novel, having left the military to come teach in this, his wife’s home town, soon realizes that an EMP has most likely been the cause, that much of the US has been affected, and that life will be a long time, if ever, in returning to ‘normal.’ What follows is Forstchen’s vision of how American society would slide in the aftermath of such an event, and how principled groups of people would struggle to survive and resist the loss of, as the characters mention several times, the American Dream.
And the vision presented is frighteningly realistic. Aside from the immediate impact of the loss of most all of the electrical devices we take for granted, the sudden collapse of the distribution network of food, medical supplies and all other goods dramatically reduces the sustainable population. Add to that the elimination of the complex social structure that guides --- and enforces --- civilized behavior, and the result is a chaotic struggle to survive. Forstchen tells a compelling and often moving story of good people fighting to maintain their personal principles and belief in the American way of life even as they face both personal loss as well as the potential destruction of the community they love.
The story, however, also tends to be heavy-handed in some way. For one, a wide current of American uniqueness runs through the story: the main characters repeatedly arguing that something must or must not be done a certain way not because it is the proper way for human beings to behave, but because it is the way Americans behave, and to do otherwise is to slip into communism, socialism or totalitarianism --- by implication to become like the rest of the world. One example is that of an Arab shopkeeper in the town, who plays no significant role in the overall story, is given a lengthy introduction apparently to make the point of how the town rallied around him when he was suspected by the FBI of terrorist activity: his presence in the story seems to be mainly to establish the goodness of true, small-town Americans. It is possible for a reader to believe in, as President Reagan put it, America as the “shining city upon a hill” without having it quite so unsubtly hammered home.
Perhaps more concerning is Forstchen’s intent with the story to stake out the EMP threat as the critical threat that faces the United State today. Early on, one of his characters complains: ‘Global warming, sure, spend hundreds of billions on what might have been a threat, though a lot say it wasn’t. This [the EMP threat], though, it didn’t have the hype, no big stars or politicians running around shouting about it…’ Having the main character, who is the intellectual, moral and philosophical center of the town and the novel, agree with the idea that ‘a lot’ of people saying global warming is not a threat shows how misguided support for it has been, only undermines his credibility and so, to an extent, the author’s claims about the threat of an EMP attack; at the very least it calls into question the thoughtfulness of his argument. Would the author accept that ‘a lot’ of people not seeing the EMP attack as a threat constitute proof that money would be wasted on preparing for it, or would he rather that decision be made on a scientific analysis of the facts? It is possible to claim that an EMP attack is a more immediate and even a more important danger than climate change, without misstating so blatantly the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change.
Forstchen, through his characters, also implies that intellectual and budgetary effort has been wasted on protecting against other threats, such as direct nuclear attacks on cities, rather than the EMP threat. But again, the story feels too adamant in making this point. The basic premise of the story is that the distribution system of the country collapses, along with the communication systems that allow a comforting sense that the larger society (and its protections) has remained intact, and so the country descends into a chaotic fight for survival. But, in another recent novel, World Made by Hand by James Kunstler, the country follows a similar descent into chaos, in this case after nuclear bombs are exploded in two major port cities, Los Angeles and Washington DC. The destruction of the cities not only shuts down functioning government, but also leads to panicked rules being put in place that cause major disruptions in transportation of goods around the world --- most critically the distribution of oil. And without oil, there is ultimately little electricity, because oil is at the heart of the distribution of not only food and medicine, but also coal. The full impact takes somewhat longer to play out, but Kunstler ends up in the same place as Forstchen: many people die, small communities struggle to survive, larger cities devolve into chaos. The same result, but no EMP involved.
Add to this the pure fantasy in One Second After that the rest of the world somehow survives well (at least sufficiently well to be able to have the US receive aid from other countries and allow them even to take advantage of the situation to invade US territory), the world economic situation apparently not significantly affected by the 100% loss of the American market; hard to imagine when the recent recession of 2008 in the US has left the world economy deeply struggling --- a recession that is minor relative to what the US faces in the novel.
Despite these shortcomings, Forstchen’s novel presents a fascinating though disturbing vision of the effect, due to whatever cause, that the collapse of the US economic and political structure would have on all of our lives.
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The author’s website, including a page on how to prepare for an EMP attack.